More Blurred Lines of Communication?

By Edward M. Bury, APR (aka The PRDude)

Some big news surfaced yesterday on the communications front.  As detailed in this article originally published in Advertising Age, an iconic Chicago-based company known for creating some of the best-known equity characters in advertising history has teamed up with a relatively new but extremely influential digital aggregator and blogger of news and commentary.

What would the late Leo Burnett say about his company's partnership?

What would the late Leo Burnett say about his company’s partnership?

Their goal, as stated in the article is “to develop strategies and then produce content for the ad agency’s clients.”  (And, of course, to make lots of money in the process.)

The players: Leo Burnett and Huffington Post.

Or, in other words: The ad agency that created Tony the Tiger, Charlie the Tuna and the Marlboro Man now joins forces with writers from the top-ranked digital media empire to draft and distribute paid media messages.  Or in other words, write what used to be called “advertorials,” or articles that are paid for, just like TV, radio, digital, print, transit and other advertisements.

On HuffPo, as the site is known, and other online platforms, paid content is identified by a “sponsored link” disclaimer.

So what’s my take-away from this development?  Here are two thoughts:

1. Makes Sense. In this ever-increasing digital  age, competition is fierce for an audience’s time and attention.  I trust

Wouldn't you like to be the fly on the wall in a conversation between Ms. Huffington and Mr. Burnett?

Wouldn’t you like to be the fly on the wall in a conversation between Ms. Huffington and Mr. Burnett?

the HuffPo content writers have the skills to draft content that generates visits that lead to sales.  The creatives at Burnett know their clients and their products and services.

2.  Divide and Conquer. Both companies are businesses, and business should make a profit. So, why not consolidate forces to produce a better product?  After all, there are plenty of ways a company can spend money to influence the consumer or business audience.

But, I wonder if this partnership will prompt other communications firms — be they advertising, traditional or digital

media, and of course, public relations firms — to do the same. And, if so, will a company lose sight of its focus, its true mission?

Will lines of communication in regards to the originator become more blurred when disseminated to the target audience?

Stay tuned, but I’d like to put  the late, legendary Mr. Leo Burnett in a room with the very much alive Arianna Huffington and get their perspectives.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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BP Drills Their Way to an Oily Mess, Part III

History is riddled with dumb comments by famous — and infamous — people.  Sometimes the comments were cruel and mean-spirited (at least as recorded by historians), and perhaps sometimes they were taken out of context.

We’ll never know for sure if this seemingly selfish quote was, indeed, uttered by Marie Antoinette when she learned the starving French wanted bread: “Let them eat cake.”  Historical novelist Catherine Delors offers a contrary view and, well, some historical insight.

The fatal explosion April 20 that led to the environmental quagmire in the Gulf of Mexico has resulted in a lot of comments we’ll forever relate to BP’s engineering and communications response to this tragedy.   A lot of these statements are billed as “PR gaffes,” but I’ll share some other thoughts soon.

Here’s a quick run down of some of the most “quoted” statements resulting from the spill:

1.  BP CEO Tony Hayward’s, “I want my life back” casual, yet utterly stupid, comment when offering thoughts to a reporter on the devastation caused to by the spill to people and the environment.  Not much room to defend Mr. Hayward here.  Yes, you were tired and frustrated; but your comment was a verbal slap in the face.

2. BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg’s, “We care about the small people” remark at a news conference following a meeting with President Obama.  This seemingly calloused comment was made by a man of Swedish descent, speaking a second language. He later apologized in a statement, more than likely written by a member of the crisis communications team.

3. President Obama’s “whose ass to kick” comment, spoken in an interview to NBC and first reported on the “Today Show.” This statement was made before the President even spoke face-to-face with any BP officials.  Yes, the President had a right to be angry because BP apparently did not have any idea how to stop the leak, or even know how much oil was gushing from the mile-deep well.  But did he have to resort to what amounts to street language?

4. Texas Rep. Joe Barton’s statement in the House during the testimony by Hayward that the proposed BP Gulf relief fund amounted to a “$20 billion shakedown.” To his credit, the Congressman said he was offering his own opinion, and he later apologized — due to pressure from those higher up in the GOP.   Yet making such a remark given the constant stream of bad news simply made no sense.

Okay, time for my thoughts.

Yes, the statements noted above, as well as others, probably should not have been spoken.  Period.  This is especially true in all of these cases because the person who spoke them knew he was being interviewed on camera.  They knew they had time to prepare remarks that wouldn’t serve as lightening rods for the ongoing mess in the Gulf.  The men who made these comments either didn’t think through the full ramifications of their statements.

Throughout this entire Gulf spill tragedy, the media keeps bringing up the public relations profession and relating it to the reason there’s oil covered pelicans, dead fish, crude-covered beaches and shattered livelihoods.  Public relations didn’t cause this problem, and public relations alone can’t solve it. The problem was caused by faulty drilling procedures; the resulting clean up efforts are engineering issues; the program to process claims is a corporate financial issue.

Public relations professionals did not make the dumb statements above or set the policies on how to handle the clean up of the Gulf.  Why keep blasting public relations?

BP Drills Their Way to an Oily Mess, Part II

Decades from now, when the catastrophic deep water oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico is analyzed from a public relations perspective, this will sum up BP’s response to the environmental calamity:

One of the most powerful private companies on earth really did not have a concerted plan in place to communicate its response to what may be the most far-reaching environmental disaster of our time.

In all fairness to BP’s communications team, news changes on this subject seemingly by the day.   In the past seven days:  The “top kill” drilling method failed;  efforts continue to try to control and contain the oil and clean up the shore and marsh lands;  the lower marine rise package (LMRP) containment system device was enhanced;  local fisherman contracted to help with the containment are getting sick; and, the U.S. Justice Department has launched  civil and criminal investigations into what led to the April 20 oil rig explosion that killed 11 and created the spill.

To their credit, the BP web site established in the days following the accident has been updated more regularly and a new video delivered by a senior VP offers an easy-to-comprehend graphic depiction of work underway to stop the leak.

BP Vice President Kent Wells.

A full-page ad in today’s Chicago Tribune is marked by a single image of workers stretching an oil containment boom and the headline:  “We Will Make This Right.”  BP officials, including CEO Tony Hayward appear on camera and continue to offer explanation and hope for a solution.   (Mr. Hayward did apologize for his insensitive “I want my life back” quote.)

What we’re witnessing is an unprecedented crisis situation exacerbated by the fact that drilling for oil a mile below the sea is  engineering operation that’s relatively new.  How could BP’s communication’s team really prepare to manage a crisis for a procedure that’s still somewhat untested?

A few aspects of this disaster are clear cut:

  • BP was late in establishing a web site and providing transparency.
  • BP was late in providing a video feed of the ruptured well.
  • BP’s CEO clearly needs some media training — and fast.
  • BP needs to do a better job communicating what they’re doing to help those impacted by this disaster — now and in the future.

A few more things to consider:  The images we have now show seas tainted by brown oil, dead pelicans washed up on beaches and  Louisiana coastal marshes covered in muck. What will BP do to change that, and how will any efforts be communicated?  And, the accident that caused the leak is unprecedented; but should the Justice Department initiate legal action, BP will have to defend itself in U.S. courts of law.  There’s a lot of precedent there.

BP Drills Their Way to An Oily PR Mess

From a classic public relations perspective, the seemingly unstoppable oil flow spill in the Gulf of Mexico will cause damage to the reputation of energy giant BP for an undetermined about of time.   The explosion on the Transocean Deepwater Horizon rig that caused the environmental, economic and political calamity of the first order happened on April 20.

The April accident resulted in an “immediate crisis,” or one that happens without any warning.  Now more than a month later, BP has  on its hands a “sustained crisis” — one with no immediate end in sight.

On this glorious Sunday in Chicago, I reviewed a full-page BP ad in the Chicago Tribune entitled: “Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill Response.  What we’re doing. How to get more information.”   Kudos to BP for stating, “BP has taken full responsibility for dealing with the spill,” and for providing straightforward information on efforts underway to stop the flow.  There’s no question it’s BP’s problem and the company should accept responsibility.

The ad offers more information through special websites, like this one from BP and another site from the overall response team, and phone numbers to call to report environmental problems or make claims.  As a message, the ad is expertly crafted.   The copy is direct — this is a catastrophe that’s unprecedented, and we’re doing all that’s possible — and free of jargon.   From a design perspective, it’s all business: just a headline, subheads and two rows of copy.  The only graphic is the BP logo at top right.

The BP website — at least on the surface — does an equally effective job of communicating the company’s efforts to contain this oil spill; and, please, there’s no pun intended regarding this offshore environmental disaster.  This site is clean and easy to navigate.  It features some dramatic images, including this one on the home page.

Image on BP Gulf of Mexico Response Page, May 23, 2010.

Scroll down, and visitors can read news announcements posted from May 5 through May 21.   And, BP BP Chief Executive Tony Hayward provides a somewhat convincing video message shot from a port in Louisiana.

Here’s where I have some concerns about how BP’s public relations team is handling this crisis.  Surely BP had a crisis plan in place to address a disaster like this one — an offshore rig it leased causing an uncontrolled oil spill — or another of this magnitude.  Why was the first news announcement post dated May 5 and not April 22?  I would imaging they could have set up a dedicated web site withing a day or two of the April 20 accident.  Why did BP post just 15 news announcements, 10 with the unimaginative headline, “Update on Gulf of Mexico Oil Response” along with the publication date.

In today’s never-ending media environment, it’s hard to imaging that BP could not provide more up-to-date  information and transparency.   Hayword’s video message was shot May 13 — 10 days ago.  He’s the face of BP; he’s the guy in the trenches on site.   Shouldn’t Hayword offer more frequent responses?  I think so.

But the latest posted announcement is especially disturbing.  Dated May 21, the announcement reiterates BP’s commitment to transparency.   It reads in part:  “BP has begun the process of collecting and uploading relevant data to its own website www.BP.com and has committed to work with the US Coast Guard and the EPA with respect to uploading of materials on a rolling basis onto this website.”

Given its resources, why is it taking BP so long to share this relevant data?

This Time, Tiger Woods is Not Burning all That Bright*

Since Tiger Woods wrecked his SUV outside the gates of his Florida mansion, all forms of media have reached out to public relations professionals for commentary. The general consensus: The greatest golfer of our time — perhaps all time — and one of the most admired, accomplished, recognized and wealthy athletes on the globe knows how to win tournaments, but he doesn’t know how to manage a public relations crisis.

Experts with credentials that range from the White House on down pointed out that Woods blew it. Regardless of why he was cruising around his gated community (at an apparently high rate of speed) at 2:30 a.m. or thereabouts November 27, Woods should have stepped forward and provided an explanation. The truth behind his day-after-Thanksgiving escapade may be embarrassing, but classic crisis communications procedures maintain:

1. Tell the truth early. (Woods should have made an initial statement Saturday in person.)
2. Have the message delivered by the highest-level source. (Woods.)
3. Offer to provide further details. (Like his ability to play golf in future tournaments.)

Well, clearly Woods did not follow these time-honored procedures. Why? Perhaps he did not want to. Perhaps he did not believe he had to because he’s Tiger Woods.

One must believe that a man who’s been in the public spotlight for many years, one who’s earned millions and millions of dollars, would have been counseled on how to effectively proceed following his “accident.” Apparently, the greatest golfer in the world ignored advice from those around him.

The point here: public relations professionals give advice to clients during a crisis and in other situations where someone wants an answer. That advice is not always followed — for whatever reason.

*With all due respect to William Blake (1757-1827) the British poet who penned “The Tyger,” one of the greatest poems in the English language.

A Salute to a True Professional During a True Crisis

For those in the public relations profession, managing communications during a crisis is the true test of one’s skill.

Like many Americans, I watched television accounts and online reports of the Thursday shooting rampage at Fort Hood, Texas. Facts are scarce during any breaking news story of this type. Reporters want to know. Everything.

The first official report I witnessed was made by Lt. Gen. Robert Cone. This officer, to my knowledge and I might be mistaken, was the first military official to report on the shootings. He was calm and deliberate. He appeared credible. He was concise and respectful to those who had fallen.

I was in awe of this guy.

This type of crisis — immediate and unsuspected — is the most dreaded kind. You can’t prepare for it, like you could before a work stoppage.

But on this day of national tragedy, Lt. Gen. Cone made very proud to be in the public relations profession and to be an American.